Again being a broke bastard threatened to be the end of me. The Chevy chugged uncomfortably along on last vapors , telling her destitute driver sheís had enough.
It was no time to get stranded on the streets gasless. With all the shit in the papers lately it was doubtful AAA would ever show up.
Earlier that day there was a huge ruckus on the Fox morning show followed by a brusque segue to commercials. When they came back twenty minutes later, the anchor guy looked in shock and his female colleague wasnít the same as before.
Personally, I couldnít care less. Being poor bred bitterness and resentment. It was all the same to me if the world decided to fuck itself apart.
There was a gas station up on Ashland, I remembered just as the car shivered again. Less than a mile, no problem.
As I drove on, I came upon two big police cruisers stuffed with six even bigger cops. They said something about the road ahead being closed and, quite unabashedly, pointed me west toward Western Ave. That put me out of my way some, but then the cops lost interest, disappearing in their vehicles. I rolled up the window and thought about it.
There was very little traffic. I had just emerged from a three-day homebound stint borne of despair and frustration. Apparently it paid off. I had missed out on some crazed event or other if this eeriness was anything to go by. Hopefully the worst was over.
I drove for a few blocks more, there was no gas station in sight. The Chevy finally died with an introspective gasp, leaving me to hightail it north towards Lawrence and then home. Luckily I managed to scrounge enough quarters from the ashtray for bus fare, right after easing the car to a flawless curbside stop. I had emerged unscathed.
Walking, I noticed how quiet it was. Shots rang in the distance and sirens wailed longingly, both standard features of this hapless town. Most buildings looked empty and haunted, except for the discount store and a big supermarket next door. There were people hurriedly coming in and out of those. The juice was still running and, like my friend Carl used to say, in a barbaric world any day with the power on was a good day.
Then I saw another cop, transit police this time, rushing toward me. She glanced nervously over her shoulder. I noticed a .38 shooter clutched in vise-gripped hands.
"Move over chump, coming through", she said, not to me nor anyone else in particular.
"You OK lady?" I turned and asked.
"Huh, what?" she snapped back from wherever it was I caught her drifting in.
"I asked if you was alright".
"So many slaughtered, dead. For what? Fucking useless", she looked aimlessly at the .38. "Bullets had no effect. Even the SWAT teams got wiped out. What the hell you doing on the street anyway? You insane?", the cop looked at me innocently, like a child.
"Just trying to get home".
"Home? You one of those things? Iíd shoot you too if I had any bullets left, but then what good would that do?", she pulled the trigger at me a couple of times. The gun clicked empty.
"Hey, you fucking nuts or something?", I flinched and made to run away.
"Nah, you ainít one of Ďem. They donít run from us, or our weapons. Listen jack, go away as far as your legs will take you, no other choice now. Havenít you heard?"
I spent the last few days indoors eating Tombstone pizza, gaming and watching DVDís. Obviously the outside world had more urgent business.
"No I havenít. Whatís going on? Whereís everybody?"
"Fool", said the cop.
"Iím going, told you already. Going home."
"You wonít make it, not that way", she pointed northward.
I moved closer, hoping to cajole more information out of her but she dodged me, waving the dry weapon again.
"Maybe somebody ought to call the army? No, theyíre dead too by now." She was speaking to herself, then started away from where I stood, puzzled.
"Lady, whatís up the street, can you at least tell me that?" I called after her.
"Torture", she half-mumbled back without as much as a look.
Torture was where I came from down the street. Nothing to lose.
There were no more sirens or gunshots to be heard. For once I came to witness this deranged city of conceit, ignorance and cruelty covered in a shroud of solitude.
I reached the bus station. This part of the long street was totally desolate, every instinct shouted to keep going, bus permanently out of service, and even if one does show up only an idiot would risk a ride. I couldnít see a single car, person nor beast anywhere. Lights were on in some of the windows, it was getting dark. Over buildings to my southeast, downtown jutted out with its dark, towering silhouettes, each peppered by gently twinkling dots of illumination. Was this a work day? Were there traders and software engineers crouched over terminals in there, unaware of the lunacy lurking around every corner? Even in this ship of fools it seemed unlikely.
My feet voted against public transport. , directing me away from the stop. I debated what to do about the Chevy once home, but something primordial and bare within insisted that was no longer a valid issue to deliberate.
A few blocks up was an arcade. It stood open. I drove passed there maybe a thousand times and never noticed it before. Nonetheless, it was definitely there. The gaudy marquee read "Mortís House of Games: Coin-Op Heaven", emblazoned with bright, shimmering lights.
Itís been forever since my last visit to an arcade. From the late 70ís up to the early 90ís I grew up on them, but then people started getting more and more powerful home gaming gear and the need for coin-ops dissolved. They retreated from ubiquity to a sprinkling of malls, then lost even that, gradually ending up as dusty, unused relics consigned to anonymity inside the Cineplex or at truck stops on bellowing interstates.
I missed the excitement of arcade-going, anticipating all the latest, cutting edge games straight from Tokyo or Sunnyvale. But that era was over, along with everything else.
So I stepped in. It was dim and smoky, as arcades remained in my mind. There was no change machine, I went to the counter. Behind sat an overweight, turgid-faced fellow with a drawn look to his person. Not out of the ordinary for someone supervising this type of emporium.
"First ten token forÖ.free", it was hard hearing him over the din produced by this arcadeís impressive collection. Everywhere I looked a classic from more innocent, childish times looked back. So I said yes and was handed my ten tokens.
I read notices on cabinets saying games were only a token a pop, none of that greedy mall shit with one round costing you a buck. That place was a steal, what it was doing open with the apocalypse imminent seemed trivial, or maybe because there was nowhere left to go I welcomed its cavernous comfort.
Others roamed the premises, some walking around curiously just as I was, some shambling detachedly, perhaps fresh out of quarters. More yet were planted in front of screens, a pale blue tinge cast over their faces. To these whatever happened outside the game mattered not. Almost all were guys.
But then, standing next to a refurbished Sega After Burner I saw her. She was extremely hot, a revered myth, the male gamerís Bigfoot or Mothman, even so, she was coming right at me.
"Hello, Iím Nova. When did you get here?" she asked.
"Five minutes ago", I answered.
"Liar, youíve been standing here wide-eyed and glossy for much longer. Been a while since you saw something this nice?", she gestured around us.
"Can say that again. You work here?"
"Kinda. Iím a fellow gamer above all else."
"Youíre a girl gamer above all else, if you donít mind my saying so. A rarity." I was gawking at her breasts.
"Funny. OK, you got the tokens, donít just mull it over, pick a game. We appreciate good customers here."
"Iím not a customer, these were free".
"Thereís more to commerce than money, or more to money than coins and paper. Everybody plays and everybody pays. Enjoy." She melted into the room.
I chose my game. Cabal. Relatively unknown shooter from circa 1989. I played for roughly ten minutes on the first token, then died. The continue prompt came on, counting down twenty seconds. At exactly that point I felt her, Nova, behind me, her hands on my shoulders and that sweet, almost rotten musk breathing down my neck.
"Well, seems choice has presented herself again. Do you want to cheat death, defy this fucking unfair universe and live to fight another day? Or will you let the timer run out, roll over and croak?", she sounded determined.
"I could play other games."
"There are no other games. You chose this one. Now you have to decide. Continue or not, that is the question."
"What happens if I do continue?"
"Youíre a gamer, you know. Enough tokens and you always win. Live forever." Her voice was candid and entrancing.
I put another token in the Cabal machine and pressed 1UP. I knew what would come next but didnít care. My entire life I searched for this place, this oasis, for her. I reached my own El Dorado, why refuse its invitation?
I was focused on the game as her teeth went into my side. I felt her bites, one by one, feeding on my flesh and blood. There was no pain, only pleasure. It took another forty minutes to finish the game, easy once you have all the continues in the world.
Later Nova took me by the hand and led us out to eat. They were scared at first, some even armed. But we were great hunters, a life on the joystick makes for superb coordination and they were all so delicious.
Especially the non-gamers.
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